Our pilot Cafe Project came to an end on Wednesday, and we can say without hesitation we went out on a high. Despite the pouring rain, the place was buzzing with people and the half term brought in the kids too, which had a wonderful effect on the sales of hot chocolate. What stood out today was the enthusiasm to get out front and talk to the customers, in total contrast to the kitchen-hugging that was happening in the first few weeks...
What a difference a week makes. In direct contrast to the torrential rain of last Wednesday, today there was only sun. Jo threw cloths over the tables under the wisteria and all was instantly transformed into the Guildford riviera.
We were chuffed to have special guests with us all day too. Tom and Grace from Marlborough College School of English and Culture came down to help prepare them to apply for the Al Rashid scholarship - a life-changing opportunity for a young person of refugee or asylum background to take part in one of two summer residential programmes based at Marlborough College...
The weather was vile on Wednesday and relentless torrents of rain meant the people of Guildford were not on the streets. Taking plates of samples outside to lure people in, while successful last week, was impossible; the falafel would have turned to soup in seconds. Vicki and I were looking without enthusiasm at the planned walk to local businesses to deposit our newly crafted flyers, when we were delighted by the surprise arrival of Akira, who is always a great hit with everybody...
Our third day of opening the cafe and we were hesitant. Unlike week one, we hadn’t bribed our friends to come and Be Customers, and unlike last week, we didn’t have a captive audience of 65 people wanting to eat. External circumstances had also occurred which meant a sudden rearrangement of plans, the last minute luring in of an extra pair of hands (thank you again, Louise) and a bit of thinking on the spot. But we opened on time, and after a nail-biting 15 minutes of silence from the world outside, people began to drift in. S suggested taking out some samples and offering them to passers-by, and since it is not possible to eat Muhammed’s falafel and not immediately fall in love with it, that worked. The cafe buzzed; some people came, sat and chatted; some dashed in and got food to go; we even had a runner taking a break to refuel. A gentleman from Wales came in by accident, fell into conversation with one of the waiters, mentioned the fact that he had never eaten falafel before and found himself compelled by the utter shock on that young person’s face to try it.
We’d started the day with a cultural literacy workshop, focusing on polite interaction with customers (“Do take a seat” instead of “Sit!”; “It’s coming right up” instead of “You must wait”; “Spread the word!”; “See you again!”, all this sort of thing, followed by the endless question of WHY we don’t have a neat little equivalent of "Bon Appetit”) and all of this interaction was put into practice. As a tool for language expansion, the project is reaping rewards already. The customer who declared “Well, that knocked my bloody socks off” caused some confusion, but it was soon ironed out. “Why is knocking socks off a good thing?” B asked, but frankly, we couldn’t answer.
We sold out. And as we all sat down to eat together at the end of the day, L pointed out that there was only one left. Which turned out to be a shame for the gentleman from Wales who’d never had falafel before, because he had come back hoping for another portion, just as L had swallowed it. “But you can come next week” L told him, encouragingly. “It might be a bit far, lad, from Swansea” the gentleman mused “but you never know. It was a smashing lunch.”
We’re open again next Wednesday 12.30-14.30. And this time we can take bulk orders in advance, for pick up at the Electric Theatre. Please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
We were so chuffed to be part of the I Speak Music networking event yesterday. From a fairly gentle opening service last week to an auditorium full of hungry people on a late lunch in just one week... is pretty good going.
And the team looked like they’d been doing it for ever. Coffees and teas came thick and fast with no mistakes, and some of them even took courage to chat to the guests over the counter, leaning on the bar in conversation like seasoned landlords. Language development is such a crucial part of the Cafe Project, that these snapshots of interactions create joy for us. Likewise, the pleasure they expressed on spotting the familiar face of our Youth Intervention Officer from the police. We have worked together on several occasions, PC J and I, aiming to address the (entirely understandable) fears and misgivings many of our young people hold towards the police, mostly stemming from distressing experience in other places. Yesterday, however, the arrival of this particular officer caused nothing short of delight.
Muhammed, our Lord Falafel, and Jo, our Electric Theatre rod and staff, were as ever calmly brilliant and it all ran without hitch. Vicki and I were struck by the perfect falafel shapes emerging from the pan. I did try my hand at making one, but it flopped out such a distinctly odd and unappetising shape that J rolled his eyes at me, and said it looked like “something in toilet”. He then demonstrated how to use this magical little falafel gadget properly, but with such deft sleight of hand that I still have no idea how it is done. Still, overall, the only real snag of lunch was for the people looking hopefully, craftily and yet completely in vain for seconds, and that is a good thing, for us.
It was a pleasure to be able to run a training workshop for all the musicians - a happy, hilarious and hugely talented bunch who proved to have great multilingual skills. And the presentations from our great friends Jim at Surrey Music Hub and Darren at Crisis Classroom, and from Davina at the Arts Council, Jennie at the Academy for Contemporary Music and Surrey Police were both fascinating and thought-provoking in turn. We were honoured to be able to share the stage with them and incredibly grateful for all the positive feedback about Big Leaf Foundation, and the many offers of support.
For us though, the highlight was this: one of our Cafe Project participants took a deep breath and stepped onto the stage himself, to address the audience and introduce the project, and did so with such confidence and eloquence, that not only did he earn the loudest burst of heartfelt applause, but our workshop partner, Denise, who had worked with them on vocal confidence only last week, had to claim hay fever as the reason behind her sudden dive for tissues. Sorry to out you, Den, but your reaction sums it up.
The Cafe Project will be running again next Wednesday from 12.30 - 2pm. Please let us know if you plan to come - we might be able to bag you a riverside seat.
Images © Big Leaf Foundation
We opened, people came and we sold all the food. So that was a pretty good start day, all told.
We started early with barista training - 8 different drinks, with varying forms, from one machine, made by 7 different people was a reasonable challenge, but it also produced a lot of coffee. A general (and correct) consensus that we shouldn’t waste anything, and an enthusiasm for ensuring that I tasted everyone’s samples (“You tried R’s cappuccino and not mine!”) did however mean that by late morning I was 8 coffees in and temporarily able to match the boundless energies of the group.
Then Muhammed arrived and the roles were assigned. Pretty much everyone wanted to be in the kitchen, safely away from having to use English to a bunch of strangers, so we drew lots. The kitchen crew headed off, relieved and beaming - the reluctant front of house group looked nervous and waited hesitantly. There was a lot of last minute scribbling in notebooks of greeting phrases, and types of coffees, and a quick rehash of pronunciation of certain ingredients (especially after one bewildered customer asked with whether we were really selling something made from little yellow chicks and was it an Easter special?) and there were also a few attempts to hide as the first customers arrived, but within minutes, things were running just fine.
Of course there were hiccups, but not many. One cup of coffee was served ice cold, and none of us is quite sure how. One of our team came to me in panic having no clue what “lemonade” could be. Someone accidentally said “chicken piss” instead of chick peas and, on clarification, was appalled at his own mistake (even though it had of course utterly delighted his friends, and the customer). But that’s fine; you simply cannot learn another language without moments like these.
There will be a fair few changes for next time. After everyone had gone we went through the feedback slips and looked at what we could implement. From now on, we will let people choose their accompaniments by setting up a salad bar behind a protective screen and having two people serve. More interaction, more language practice, and that works for me, if not so much for them. We will also be able to serve more promptly, now everyone knows what they are doing. And since three people asked for dessert, we might even set up a baklava station.
All in all, we sold out and everyone left grinning. However, the very best thing was how patient and how positive everyone was who came to eat with us today. One young man told me he didn’t know English people were friendly like that and another said he was over the moon that everyone had understood when he had spoken to them. These things mean a lot.
Finally, Muhammed spoke to us all. “Like you, I arrived here with nothing” he said “but I am so grateful to everyone who helped me. There are so many people who will help you too. We couldn’t stay at home, and so we have to make our lives somewhere else. If you have an idea, and you want to do something, focus on that. You can do it, and we can do this.”
A huge thank you from all of us to everyone who made the opening day such a happy experience; to Richard, Akira, Denise, Andy, Jemma and Louise for all the help in the workshops, to Jo for all the smiling serenity around the coffee machine and the till, and to Muhammed for his inspiration, his skills and his incredible secret sauce recipe (which we will never stop trying to discover).
The cafe is closed next Wednesday (24th April) for a private function. But we're open again on May 1st, 8th, 15th, 22nd from around 12 - 2pm. We hope to see you there.
Today started as enthusiastically as yesterday finished. Thank heavens for Louise arriving on time and sorting the teas and coffees. Louise now knows how dangerous it is to ask the evening before if any help might be needed; the answer is always going to be “oooooh, yes”.
With two more joining us today, we go through the ‘whats’ and the ‘whys’ again, and look at language simplicity around pitching the project. Alliteration is popular. “Authentic and affordable”; “delicious food, decently priced”; “fabulous falafel, fantastic price”. The use of language is delightful. One participant reminds us it’s exactly a year since he arrived in the UK, and indeed I remember meeting him so clearly - he couldn’t say a single word. Yet today, he asks if “coveted” would be a good collocation for the word “cost”. It is nothing short of joyful.
Our second session starts with the very brilliant writer, musician, director, performer and generally excellent Denise, who forces us onto our feet and puts everyone through a series of exercises designed to break down inhibitions about speaking to people, and control the breathing when the nerves are up. Tongue twisters, vocal exercises, discovery of everyone’s special talent (Den can do an alarmingly accurate walrus impression; I can close my nose like a camel; M can stick one leg out in front of him and lower himself to the floor and back up again; R can lick his own elbow... and so on) and everyone is noisy and much, much more relaxed.
And so to practise customer service. Den’s game “Difficult Customer; Dream Customer” involves the customer choosing different scenarios, and the participants responding as best they can. “Your falafel is delicious” was greeted with “Yes, I know” from B, though we all then agree that “Thank you - do come again” is probably better. The example of “I don’t like falafel - can I have a burger?” gets short shrift from K (“Go to McDonalds”) and so we discuss the importance of always being positive to gain custom (“We do only have falafel - but why don’t you give it a try?”). When Louise, playing the Difficult Customer says “I forgot my money and I can’t pay” most of them agree that she could be allowed to pay next week because that might bring her back; S, however, is cynical, and demands she gives him her shoes. “She’s pulling a fast one” he whispers to me, and I am so bowled over by the use of idiom, I can only agree.
Over lunch, Andy and Jemma, from a well-known local company, come to give them the chance to practise their pitch on strangers. Two of them are brave enough to try, and Andy and Jemma couldn’t have been more positive. Talking to strangers can be hard enough if strangers have not always been kind. Doing it in a second language adds another layer of difficulty.
One more protracted debate over the horrors of hairnets, and one apron trying-on session later and we are pretty much ready to go. We will open tomorrow at about 12.30 at the Electric Theatre in Guildford. We have no idea whether we will sell out, or have no customers at all.
As A said earlier, that is all part of the fun.
Huge thanks to Louise, Denise, Andy and Jemma for all your help today, and to Jo at the Electric Theatre for her continued unflappable brilliance.
It seems to have gone well. Five young people turn up, with two more apologising and promising to come tomorrow, which means we have 7 participants, not 6, but that should only be a minor hurdle, and this blog post is perhaps a good way of gently bringing this particular surprise to the attention of our Treasurer…
We sit in the open space of the cafe and talk about what it might be. Everyone is hesitant at first, but I tell them the story of our brilliant chef, who has built his business up from scratch. Two years ago, forced from home, new to the UK and wondering what on earth to do now, Muhammed’s friend had said to him “You have a bicycle, so you have a business”, and now that business is indeed thriving. H looks more inspired. “We have a kitchen, and a place” he muses. We agree it should be ok.
The amazing staff at the Electric Theatre are so welcoming it doesn’t take long to feel at home. With everyone piled into the kitchen area, ideas start to come thick and fast. We can do Eritrean nights. There’s plenty of space to make injera. We should definitely do Kurdish barbecue - everyone would come for that. Can we have music? Can we have dancing?
When it gets to keeping our own goats, I feel bad but bring them back down to the more practical level, because we have several workshops to do. We start with talking about the idea. We now know what we are doing - but do we know why? The Big Leaf ethos is crystal clear in the minds of everyone on our team, but it’s absolutely not our place to impose it on anyone else. And actually we don’t have to. More occasions to speak English; the chance for training and work experience; the opportunity to try out news skills, to have something to do and not be alone in a room, to meet local people - all this is easily identified. “It could be huge” says B. “Like Nandos” says J. “But better”.
We’ve been so lucky to have such enthusiastic offers of help from friends and contacts, and today we had Akira, who is greeted with joy by the lads who were with us at Trill, and Richard who delivers a hugely entertaining and inspiring session on finding the story to make the brand. Richard is Head of Content at Tribal Worldwide, and shows us how stories can create the difference that enables a business to stand out. At the end of the session the teams decide that the way our cafe can stand out is by being "the place that brings people together". It is their idea entirely, and far better than anything we’ve come up with so far. Even Richard calls it “brilliant” and he doesn’t praise easily, believe me.
And so to food safety and hygiene. The laws and requirements around this topic seem endless, and I can’t blame them if their eyes glaze over occasionally. K comments somewhat darkly that there’d been no safety or hygiene in Calais and he “hadn’t died". But there’s no getting around this, even though these topics are complex enough without the barrier of the second language. Still, Akira and I are now expert at miming all sorts of problems symptomatic of food poisoning, and possible hazards in food.
ACM Head Chef Matt arrives to help. When talking about suitable clothing, he mentions casually that K’s impressive head of hair might require him to wear a hair net. Everyone who understands what a hair net is, agrees delightedly. K senses their glee, eyes them suspiciously and asks me what a hair net is. We google pictures and K’s eyes widen with horror. “THAT is very disgusting” he announces, ignoring the rest of them as they insist he choose a pink one. “I will shave my head”.
Tomorrow, we will make our first pitch to a very large, very local business. Next Wednesday we will cater our first event for 50 people. And this Wednesday we will open. Please pop in for a falafel and a coffee and support us.
This week has flown, but equally we seem to have been here forever. There is a noticeable difference in the way that people move around the farm - they are now quite at ease; regularly popping into the herb garden to make tea, or taking on one of the Trill kids at table tennis. Some of them simply lie in the grass. We are all very much at home.
It’s the final morning, and Alex needs a record 5 rounds of saucepan banging to shift them out of their beds. The breakfast cupboard is completely bare, and rogue crumbs around the toaster speak of midnight feasting. It’s cornflakes or nothing, but Akira encourages the sceptics to try them with jam, which they find rightly weird, but good enough at least to be able to eat. M is cross when he realises I don’t like cornflakes and therefore am without breakfast. He happily snitches on everyone who was up eating in the night, and as each one arrives sheepishly at the breakfast table, having been told sternly that Akira, Fabian and I are “starving because of them”, he insists on them making a heartfelt apology. “Don’t worry, K” he tells me, while scowling at them, “When it is lunch time they will give you their lunch. I make sure”.
Muji takes half of them to make healing balm; some of the others crowd around Ruth in the workshop, clamouring all at once for her attention in the rush to finish their stools; my group go with Sam to use up the clay they dug from the ditch the other day. They make mugs and ashtrays, with leaf impressions as decoration. These are surprisingly skilful, and it turns out several of them have worked with clay back home. K says it reminds him of being a child again - he used to make clay animals for his siblings.
The final meal is self-made pizza, cooked in the outside oven we made on the trip last year. The assembly line is snappy and ruled by Akira with a rod of iron. And just as the last one is pulled out of the coals, it’s time to go.
I ask them all if they have everything and they assure me they absolutely do, and they have checked many times, definitely. I do a scan of the guest house and return with an overflowing armful of socks, t-shirts, shoes and boxers which were all hiding in plain sight. We have forgotten to tell the coach company that we might need a trailer for the way back, as we are now bringing 14 kitchen stools with us, so the driver creates a jigsaw stack in the boot and then bags are crammed under the seats instead.
Last year, saying good bye was hard and so I am already apprehensive. But it seems to be going well. Each person in turn takes time to give their thanks to Romy and the Trill crew, and to express what the week has meant to them. M says he is happy to have been in a 'big family'. R says everyone was so friendly to him and he felt safe. A and M loved the carpentry; S is sorry they won’t let him take a sheep; H says he has got much fatter. It's all jovial and heartfelt, until Sam steps forward. He tells them all that his advice, having been in their shoes years ago, is to take every opportunity that opens up to them, even if it scares them. “You are all so talented, so strong, with so much to give” he says “We are very lucky that you came”. I can feel my eyes beginning to itch, and am clearly not the only one. The Trill team then speak, one after another, all with the same message: thank you for coming; thank you for your warmth and friendship; you are so welcome here; we are so happy to have been with you; we should say thank you to you. The boys look stunned. And when Ash is finally taken down by emotion, we witness one of the most striking moments of the week. Silently, the boys make a line in front of him and each one hugs him, at length, but without saying a word. There are no words to sum this up, anyway.
Finally they are all on the bus, and the Trill team line up to wave us off. The stinging emotion of the last 30 minutes quickly dissipates as Akira and I force sick bags on them all and pretend to vomit in a clear demonstration of how to use them. Last year, you see, S had insisted his pizza was “happy inside his stomach” and he “absolutely did not need bag”, yet 4 minutes into the journey, the same pizza was happy all over the backs of our heads, and none of us have quite recovered from this experience. I also play the mother card by insisting everyone use the loo before we go. No one needs it, they assure me. They are all absolutely fine. I say we will not be stopping every five minutes for someone to find a tree. They look wounded by my doubt in them, and say “No need, K, no need”. Then we have the same old battle over the seat belts (Them: “In my country we never wear!”; Akira and I: “I don’t CARE; it’s the LAW” and repeat, with each person) and by the time we pull away I can’t help wondering whether the tears on the faces of some of the Trill staff are actually tears of relief, after 20 minutes of waiting for us to actually go. I tell them all if they have forgotten anything, we are not going back. Z says it doesn’t matter, because he is going back, for sure, next year. Thinking of the fight we had to persuade him onto the bus to come here in the first place, this makes us grin.
We leave Trill, with everyone yelling their good byes through the windows. 5 minutes into the journey we stop for S to go to the loo. We continue for another 7 minutes, before both Ms think they should do the same. 6 minutes later, 4 more say they desperately need to go. Akira has his head in his hands. Luckily, our driver has saintly patience, and by the time we hit the motorway, all the boys, and Akira, and me, are asleep.
There is a lot to digest: a lot of thoughts to process and it will take a little time to bring them into order. But for now Vicki, Jocelyn and I would like to thank Akira and Fabian, for giving up a week of their time to live alongside us; for their humour and patience and unflappability in the face of the unexpected. We will not let you go, boys, because you are far too brilliant. And of course, our love, gratitude and thanks go in spades to Romy and the Trill team for a wonderful, fabulous week; for the inspiring programme of activities and opportunities, for the fantastic food and continuous provision of tea and cake, for the utterly flawless organisation and inspirational teaching and occasional use of saucepan lids...and above all else, for their warmth, humour and acceptance that pulled us to the heart of Trill Farm and welcomed us to become part of this unique and magical place. To finish with the words of M, “I lived for a while in another world, and now I feel strong”.
I don’t even know where to start. Was this morning only today? It started so calmly, just me and my coffee at the breakfast table, and slowly the rest of our team arrived. Fabian and Akira look more tired than usual and Fabian admits that yes, he did finally have to get up in the night to tell the boys that although he loved their music and dancing, he thought it best they didn’t actually crash through the ceiling. And when the boys arrive, they shuffle into breakfast with the hunted look of people who have indeed been having a jolly dance party till the early hours, before being rudely dragged from their beds by Alex and his saucepan lids.
We start in the herb garden with Trill Farm’s resident herbalist Muji, who exudes peace and calm, and encourages everyone to kick off their boots and walk barefoot amongst his herb beds. D grins a me and whispers “We are like hippy!" But they listen to Muji. Digestive problems, headaches, stomach pains and insomnia are common ailments for people living with the stress of forced dislocation from home, and Muji carefully takes us round the remedies for them all. There is nothing he doesn’t know about what's growing in his garden and the boys are fascinated. K and R tell me they want to sleep better and stop having stomach pains when they think. They also say it reminds them of home where herbs are used much more - R says he didn’t know we even had them in the UK. M remembers how back in Sudan his grandfather healed his injured leg by using plants and oils. They are delighted to see Muji growing Khat and tobacco, though he is quick to point out that they are not allowed to grow these themselves, and that there danger of ingesting plants you are not knowledgeable about. “If you smoke that,” he says, “it will kill you”. D takes a step back, the thoughts of filling his tobacco pouch thankfully discarded. Muji also points out rosehip and tells us how the seeds make perfect itching powder. I see I’s face light up and watch him slip a handful into his pocket. “For K,” he whispers, beaming at me. “For his bed”. Having seen K throw I’s shoe into a swamp yesterday for no reason, I think there is little need to intervene. Muji suggests we all "do some meditation" together. This is a lovely idea in theory, though in reality, there are six of us sitting on a mat, and the proximity means that snorts of laughter are hard to contain. The boys try to be serious until the sounds of a shrieking M being chased by a guinea fowl waft over to the garden and send everyone into suppressed fits. But Muji is wonderful. We all leave the garden feeling slightly on another plane, and he encourages everybody to come back whenever they want and to help themselves to the tea herbs, which everybody does. B tells me later that Muji has cured his headache and cramps. He has had them every night for 4 months, but after drinking some Trill Farm summer tea, they have gone.
A real treat of the day was a visit from Julian to talk about keeping bees. He explains all about bee navigation systems, how they live and sacrifice themselves for the colony, the guards at the entrance to the hives to keep out any imposters - it’s not hard to see an analogy, for anyone. It turns out that one of the lads has worked with bees at home, and was intrigued by the protective gear. “We don’t use that” he laughs “We just watch, and maybe run”. Julian talks about how to work with them, the presence of danger and the need to be constantly alert, but the great reward when all goes well. Again, there are nods of recognition. The mood lightens when Julian brings out 6 pots of honey to try, and the quiet order of the classroom is lost to a scrum around the jars.
Afterwards, there is falconry. Karen of Kingswood Falcons keeps her birds at Trill Farm, and they watch us appraisingly as we walk up to meet her. Everyone is given a glove, and we are introduced to George the Barn Owl, Rosie the European Eagle Owl with her bright orange eyes, (“Ow! So heavy! Arm is shaking!”) Inca the kestrel, Artemis the Buzzard, and Khan the falcon. Karen talks us through their histories - most of these birds are rescue, taken from caged environments and brought back to health and happiness by dint of huge dedication on Karen’s part towards building trust and respect. “You have to look after them properly” says H carefully "It's difficult to trust people when people have given you a bad life". You don’t want to look for metaphor in everything, but I think everyone feels it. It’s something we notice again and again - we are in the thick of a holiday atmosphere of hilarity and camaraderie, but the biting reality of past experience and future uncertainty is never far below the surface. Karen takes us out into the field and shows us how to swing the lure. I get tangled in my line and whack myself in the face with the lure, which generates shouts of sympathy mixed with explosions of mickey-taking. M is so good, he is sent out to try it for real, with Khan. He stands nervously in the field while Khan sweeps around expectantly, and M panics, throws out the food early, and squeals as Khan heads right for him. Everyone else is delighted by M’s consternation, and film him gleefully; later K tells me she could see the whites of his startled eyes from across the field.
In the evening it pours with rain, which puts football and swimming off the cards, but we have two guitars and a keyboard and the craft room is turned into a jam session. Everyone is reluctant to start and Ruth and I have to be brutally encouraging, in a you-have-no-choice kind of way, to Trill staff and Akira and Fabian, but they are brilliant and are properly applauded. We have to field requests for songs from Africa and the Middle East that we have never heard of, but by the end it turns out that everyone knows Bob Marley, everyone can sing the chorus from Hallelujah, and everyone will sing Stand By Me.
The evening ends with a game that has become a central part of this week - it is part football, part piggy-in-the-middle and (it seems to me) part dancing. I can’t understand it at all, but it involves everyone, and a heck of a lot of shrieked laughter. And more to the point, it wears everyone out.
M, D, H and S say they have one problem. They do not get enough sleep here and they feel “very tired” when Alex bangs his saucepan lids at 08.30. Fabian politely suggests it is because they stay up chatting, or dancing, until 4am. They look thoughtful and agree that if they went to bed earlier, they would indeed have more time to sleep. It seems to be quite a revelation, but I am not sure how far it will sink in. The general energy here can carry on into the night. Akira says he doesn’t care, because he can sleep through anything, so I make a mental note definitely to ensure that Akira comes next time, and for me to reclaim the beautiful (and separate) guest house.
Before I go to bed, H sidles up to me and informs me that actually he is not leaving tomorrow. He is not going back. He looks pretty determined and I think we will come back to this in the morning.